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B&N Week 107: Story Mechanics

| January 8, 2013

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We have another Tuesday upon us! Isn’t it wonderful! It’s the second week of the year, and it’s an exciting time, let me tell you.

We’re still talking about creating a story for a comic. I’m not going to talk about the story itself—storytelling can come in many ways. What I want to talk about is the mechanics of telling a story within the physical medium of the comic page. Digital is a different bailiwick altogether, and it is still being understood. So, let’s look at the physical for now, and we’ll tackle the digital down the road somewhere. [That murky enough for ya?]

When telling a physical story, there are certain things you have to understand. Just like there’s a formula for movies [especially action movies], there’s something of a formula for storytelling in a comic. You just have to look at a few well-written comics to really get the benefit of studying them.

Let’s take it macro before going micro. (Le huh?) Let’s look at the big stuff before looking at the little stuff. (Oh, okay.) Comics have an ebb and flow to them. Looking at a “regular” twenty-two page story, you have to catch the reader within the first three pages. You have to. If you don’t, then you’re done. Three pages. Those three have to be interesting. If they aren’t, stop now, think again, and regroup.

The next page or two have to live up to the first three pages. Four to five pages. That’s your first scene. It has to kick ass. It’s the first thing your readers are coming across.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about action, gunplay, explosions, car chases, or anything of the sort. What I said was that the first scene has to be interesting, and it has to kick ass. “Interesting” can be anything. But your first scene is what’s going to propel your readers through the rest of the story.

Your second scene can be about five to seven pages. This second scene can dip some in interest. It doesn’t need to kick as much ass. It still needs to be interesting, but all it needs to do is carry the story for a little bit.

Your third scene has to start ramping things up again. This should be about five to seven pages, as well. When I talk about ramping things up, I’m talking about building up the interest once more. This is where you start to pay the piper. You have to build that reader anticipation, because the end is coming up right around the corner.

So, we finally come to the fourth and final scene. But first, some counting.

Looking at the page counts, the first scene is about four to five pages, the second is about five to seven, the third is about five to seven, which means that, at a minimum, you have fourteen pages, and at maximum, you have nineteen. What does this mean?

At fourteen pages, you have enough space to fit in a fourth scene. This means your third scene can continue to just hold the reader’s attention. It doesn’t necessarily need to ramp things up. It can, but it doesn’t have to.

If you’re at three scenes and it’s fourteen pages, then you have more space to add another scene. Just like the third scene going into the fourth and final, that fourth scene going into the fifth and final needs to start to ramp up the story once again. It has to. It’s like a movie: the final few minutes leading to the big fight or resolution is where things get interesting again. Same concept here. Got it? Good.

That final scene is where you have to tie up at least some loose ends. I said we were talking about a twenty-two page story, but didn’t say if it was a one-off or part of a larger arc. Let’s look at them both.

If it’s a one-off, then everything you’ve built has to be in this final scene. [For single-issue stories, the final scene can be seen as an extension of the scene preceding it. This will not be true for all stories, but for a good majority of them it will be.]

For a larger arc, the final scene needs to wrap up some minor mysteries of the issue, while creating new ones. Maybe it’s the revelation that there’s a mastermind behind everything that happened up to now, or that the hero [in the most generic use of the term] has failed to do something that has raised the stakes for subsequent issues, or that the mcguffin is more important than what was originally thought, or…

That’s an overview of large chunks of story. Pacing, in terms of scenes.

Let’s break it down now. Let’s look at pacing in terms of panels and dialogue.

The largest unit of a panel is the splash page. A single panel that should be of high impact to the story. When I say “high impact,” I’m talking about a page that would be the equivalent of a key explosion in an action movie.

Splash pages have to be used judiciously. Their placement is key. Ideally, they should be placed in a very few locations.

The first location is the first page. It starts the story, it has the credits, and even though it’s the start, that doesn’t mean that its impact on the story is any less. Right after that, the next place to put the splash page is on any even-numbered page within the first scene [usually either on page two, or the last even-numbered page in the first scene]. Why is this placement so important? Because you don’t want to lessen the impact by showing the splash page beforehand on an odd-numbered page. [Remember: odd-numbered pages are on the right, even-numbered pages are on the left.]

The next place to put a splash page is at the very end of the story. Page twenty-two. This should be the equivalent to that final shock, that storytelling slap in the face or knock against the forehead or something similar. This is the big revelation, what the story has been working toward. It has to be good and powerful.

The next place to put the splash page is somewhere in the middle of the story. If there are five scenes, I would place it somewhere in the third.

The splash page can be over-used. Simple advice: don’t. Generally speaking, if you have more than two in an issue, then you’re wrong.

Now, in order to keep your readers interested, you have to pepper the story with hooks. Do this: go and get the complete run of Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan. Get the entire run. You won’t be disappointed. Now, study it. See how he works a hook onto just about every odd-numbered page? Something to get the reader to turn the page and continue reading? That’s what I’m talking about.

Your hook should be on the last panel of an even-numbered page. Ideally, you should have a hook on every even-numbered page in your story. However, at the very least, you need to have a hook as the very last panel of every scene. This is your minimum.

When it comes to dialogue, it isn’t enough just to have something to say. Even though dialogue is supposed to either advance the plot or reveal character [or both simultaneously], you have to understand that it is the dialogue that is doing the heavy lifting in any story.

In telling a story in comics, you have to realize that the dialogue has to keep the majority of the interest. We’ll come back to this at a later time, but while the words and pictures work together to leave a mark, it will be the words that will stick with you.

Always remember that for dialogue to have impact, three things must be kept in mind: what is said, how it is said, and when it is said. This is a part of pacing, and we’ll come to that at a later time, as well. If you keep these three things in mind faithfully and proceed accordingly, you’ll be able to keep the attention of the readers no matter what is being said.

One of the best ways of keeping a good pace is to say something really important in the last panel of a page turn [odd-numbered page], or barring that, in the last panel of a scene. We’ll also talk more about transitions at a later time (lots of stuff to talk about later, yeah?) [I know, but there are tons of things to making a good script, and can’t talk about them all at once.], but one of the simplest uses of a hook as well as a transition from one scene to another is to have someone say something important in the last panel, and then have someone speaking in a voice-over caption in that panel, and continue that conversation in the next scene after the page turn.

Simple and effective, but it can also be over-used. Over-use of many tips and tricks is easy to do. Ease is seductive. Don’t fall for it. You’ll bore your readers because they’ll see it coming.

That’s really about it for this week. Next week, we’ll talk about panel borders, time, and color. They’re all more important than you think. Then we’ll try to get into transitions, and then we’ll see about pacing.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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